By Lawrence Toppman
British auto engineer Alec Issigonis famously described a camel as “a horse designed by a committee.” Yet in the absence of a music director, a committee from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) designed a season as rare locally as a unicorn.
I’ve always met CSO season announcements with the same response: “This concert, very cool. This one…maybe, if I’m not busy. This I can easily skip.” Now, for the first time in 43 years, I see a Classical Series where every concert seems essential. Even the Pops and Family series contain don’t-miss stuff. The CSO just set the innovation bar higher for every local arts organization.
You’ll find the entire lineup here. Let me explain briefly why I’m buzzed.
First, it’s packed with unusual things. Except for Verdi’s Requiem and Handel’s “Messiah,” which both require a full evening, and one program featuring Wieniawski and Kodály, each concert in the classical series includes a local premiere. Instead of one brief new piece and two familiar ones, the ratio is often reversed.
Second, women and composers of color get stronger representation, not just in eight-minute curtain-raisers but in works that anchor programs. I’ve beefed for years about the absence of William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony,” the first symphony by a Black composer performed by a major orchestra. Here it comes.
Third, these concerts have been thoughtfully coordinated. For example, the one conducted by former music director Christopher Warren-Green includes three British pieces about the sea, culminating in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony to texts by Walt Whitman.
Traditionalists will get Beethoven’s “Eroica,” Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris,” Holst’s “The Planets.” But consider these less common highlights:
Oct. 6 – 8: Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” and the “Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” a lilting piece by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Violinist Melissa White, founding member of the Harlem Quartet, will solo.
Oct. 20 – 22: Not only Still’s symphony but Emilie Mayer’s obscure “Faust” overture and Dvořák’s spooky tone poem “The Noonday Witch.” (Note that the symphony has restored Sunday matinees for some programs.)
Jan. 19 – 20: Jennifer Koh plays Missy Mazzoli’s violin concerto “Procession.” (It’s a season for hip violinists.) Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite is the one familiar work alongside Samuel Barber’s Second Essay and Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” suite, co-commissioned by the CSO.
Feb. 2 – 3: The suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” and John Adams’ symphony, “Doctor Atomic.”
Feb. 16 – 18: Zoltán Kodály’s stirring “Dances of Galanta” and Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No.2, a good choice for concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu.
March 1 – 2: Pianist Michelle Cann plays a work she has championed, Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement. It’s a smart pairing for “Rhapsody in Blue,” written 10 years earlier in 1924.
March 22 – 23: Not only Julia Perry’s “A Short Piece for Orchestra” but the obscure trumpet concerto by Oskar Böhme, played by CSO principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn.
April 5 – 6: Wang Jie’s Symphonic Overture “America, the Beautiful.” Wang came to Charlotte last fall when her husband, “Performance Today” emcee Fred Child, hosted WDAV’s broadcast of the CSO’s season-opening concert. She must have impressed folks at the symphony.
April 26 – 27: Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony,” Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” and Welsh composer Grace Williams’ “Sea Sketches.”
May 17 – 18: Another well-curated program. “The Planets” gets matched with Caroline Shaw’s “The Observatory” and Jeremy Lamb’s “A Ride on ‘Oumuamua,” inspired by the first known interstellar object to travel our solar system.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sept. 20 gala with Renée Fleming, one of the most popular operatic sopranos of the last 35 years, or the Feb. 9 – 10 Pops concerts with unclassifiable Regina Carter. She’ll play jazz-tinged shows that include David Schiff’s concerto “Four Sisters,” which pays homage to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
If I ever got up on Saturday mornings before 11, I’d be going to two Family Series concerts. The one on Feb. 10 features music by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Europe’s’ first important Black composer; he’s having a moment, as the biopic “Chevalier” comes out in a few weeks. The one on April 13 pairs Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” with “Thurber’s Dogs,” a suite celebrating James Thurber’s drawings by Peter Schickele. (Yes, the P.D.Q. Bach guy.)
If you’re wondering whom to applaud for this fresh programming, thank the committee: president and CEO David Fisk, director of artistic planning Carrie Graham, resident conductor Christopher James Lees (who conducts the Family Series), principal flutist Victor Wang (chair of the musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee), cellist Sarah Markle, clarinetist Allan Rosenfeld, timpanist Jacob Lipham and principal trumpet Alex Wilborn.
Note that no Classical Series concert has a conductor listed on the website, except the one with Warren-Green. Officially, the symphony expects to name a new music director by the end of 2023. Unofficially, I hear the choice will be made by September, which means we’ll have seen all the candidates by the time the current season ends in May.
Whoever the CSO picks will undoubtedly share the philosophy that motivated the ground-breaking choices for 2023-24. I can’t wait to see what happens next.